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We all know the off-season activities that are supposed to help us become better skiers: trail running, goblet squats, transceiver drills, and so forth. But there’s more to life than just athletic ability. Building my own set of wooden skis last summer was the most consequential piece of my pre-season development, as it left me with a deeper understanding of the practice of skiing and its epic history.
Just to be clear, I am by no means a ski Luddite or a tele-evangelist. I do most of my skiing on a dorky ultralight Hagan ski-mo rig with carbon fiber stringers and 6-ounce race bindings. But when I made (and eventually skied) a pair of wooden telemark skis, I found that I was able to better appreciate and understand every nuance of my gear. I felt an emotional connection to the hundreds of generations of skiers and ski makers who came before me.
I was also desperately looking for ways to procrastinate on writing my doctoral thesis.
Humans have been using planks of wood to cross snow and ice for thousands of years. Skis themselves are a Eurasian invention, first appearing in the Altai mountains of Central Asia thousands of years ago, and gradually being refined over the centuries across Asia and Northern Europe as machine tools and glues improved. The modern snowshoe, by contrast, traces its lineage to devices developed by indigenous peoples of North America.
Skiing in its modern form is inextricably linked to the Norwegians, and the region of Upper Telemark in particular, where, in the 1860s, a revolution in ski materials, design, and technique led to the development of what would be recognized today as a classic style XC ski: two symmetric, cambered planks with a tip shovel, and free heel. This Norwegian influence is felt not just in their continued dominance of the Winter Olympics, but in the language of skis and skiing: stem Christie turns are named for Christinia (the name of the Norwegian capital of Oslo from 1624-1925); and of course, the telemark binding that still holds sway over the hearts of the odd children of skiing (whom we love dearly).
Perhaps the most exemplary achievement of Norwegian ski making (and telemark bindings) was Roald Amundsen’s 1911-1912 South Pole expedition. Amundsen’s team—hardy Norsemen and lifelong, expert skiers all—were equipped with extra-long hickory XC skis to bridge crevasses on the Antarctic glaciers. Utilizing dog sleds and other techniques Amundsen had learned from his time with the Greenland Inuit and his own long experience with Arctic travel, Amundsen’s team became the first humans to reach the South Pole
Crucial to the success of the party was the presence of Olav Bjaaland, a carpenter and Norwegian national Nordic skiing champion. A native son of Upper Telemark, Bjaaland helped design (and re-design, during the long Austral winter of 1911) much of their equipment for the harsh Antarctic environment. During the push for the South Pole, he would ski in front of the party to lay in a track from the sled dogs and sled. Bjaaland, Amundsen, and the team, skiing at an efficient, calculated pace (and slaughtering the dogs as they expired), completed the 1,600-mile journey from the Antarctic coast to the South Pole and back in 99 days, and returned to Norway in good health and spirits.
By contrast, a concurrent expedition of Englishmen swapped four pairs of skis between five men who barely knew how to use them.
“Skis are the thing and here are my tiresome fellow countrymen too prejudiced to have prepared themselves for the event,” team leader Robert F. Scott groused in his diary, as they floundered amidst sastrugi and windblown pockets of Antarctic snow. At one point they became so frustrated they even ditched their skis, only to hike back the following day to retrieve them.
Disdainful of the experiences of non-British Arctic travelers, Scott’s team committed dozens of additional operational errors, any one of which should have been enough to doom them. They somehow managed to not only tag the Pole (a month after Amundsen) but make it back to within 11 miles of their food and fuel depots —after a journey of some 1,300 miles— before running out of supplies and dying of frostbite, exhaustion, and starvation. One can’t help but wonder if they could have made that extra 0.84 percent of the journey if they’d bothered to bring that fifth pair of skis.
In the present day, more than a full century later, in the sweltering, strange Massachusetts spring of 2020, I was coming to the realization that despite a decade of engineering education behind me, I had no familiarity with hand tools or traditional woodworking. Most of my building experience had been with 3D printers and computer-aided machining (CAM) tools. Certainly, I could use these rapid prototyping tools to create beautiful and functional things–a wooden map, a laptop stand, an MRI helmet sized for a juvenile Macaca mulatta—but I didn’t know the difference between a hand plane and a planar.
Resolved to solve this deficiency, I liberated some tools from work and my dad’s basement. As an enthusiastic backcountry skier, I could think of no finer way to learn than by attempting to build a 1910s era telemark ski.
Here’s how I did it. (Safety note: Be VERY careful with woodworking tools, especially power saws and chisels. Your fingers won’t grow back.)
I used cumaru (Brazilian teak) because I found some leftovers from a decking project. It’s an odd choice for a ski because it is a tropical hardwood, but it was (a) free/recycled, (b) beautiful, and (c) clear and straight grained. Most tropical hardwoods don’t accept water easily (hence their use in decking) so steam bending would prove difficult, but carving the wood was a joy.
I used 2×4 lumber for my (numerous) test pieces, but most construction lumber is too knotty for ski making. Hickory is a traditional choice for skis, but most non-tropical hardwoods should do well. The important thing is to find a sufficient length of straight-grained and knot-free wood. Don’t be afraid to do a glue-up if you can’t find a sufficiently large and clear stave or board.
I used a jigsaw to make the rough cuts, and then a small hand plane to shape the sides of the ski. Narrowing the ski down I found it easiest to do with planes as well. In particular, I found that a $15 spokeshave was invaluable for the tips and tails.
The channel on the center of the ski I cut with a router. I suspect it is more decorative than functional, but traditional for Nordic skis and looks darn cool. Inspired by my buddy’s Voile V6 traction-patterned touring skis, I hand carved fish scales under the center of the ski with a curved gouge. As a final bit of panache, I cut in an attractive angular swallowtail.
I read widely about steam bending before I dared attempt it with skis to create the tip shovel and camber. I found the resources on traditional ski making to be pretty limited (especially steam bending), but there is a vast repository of knowledge on all of the relevant woodworking techniques from boatbuilders and bowyers. (Another safety note: steam is hot, so wear gloves for this).
I built a long box from plywood that I attached to a cheap wallpaper steamer. I caulked the seams with silicone, but some leaking is OK and even desirable. By running the steamer continuously (refilling the water tank every 45 minutes) I could steam for as long as I wanted. I used a kitchen thermometer to measure the temperature at a couple of points within the box.
After some experimentation, I found I could get cumaru to bend after soaking for three days and then steaming for four hours. After removing the skis from the steamer, I clamped them in a jig (created from 2×4 and plywood) and left them there for a week. Steamed wood has a remarkable ability to heal itself, and I found that I had to clean up most of the fish scales and other detail work after steaming.
After a final sanding, I used a thin layer of epoxy to coat the base. Again, not a traditional choice (pine tar is the classic), but I wanted to preserve both the structure and appearance of the fish scales which would otherwise be quite fragile. The sides and top I finished with three coats of linseed oil, which is traditional.
A truly OG 19th century telemark binding would just be thin twigs of willow, or else leather straps pushed through holes in the ski. That was too hardcore even for me, so I mounted a robust 3-pin tele binding, which I think looks pretty darn elegant against the dark wood.
I first skied them on a short walk in the woods during a December blizzard in eastern Massachusetts. It was the least intense bit of skiing I had done in over a decade. But the experience of trundling through the woods on a traditional ski design that I had built with my own two hands reignited my stoke for backcountry skiing with a passion that a hundred laps down Tuckerman Ravine wouldn’t inspire.
I wonder what Olav Bjaaland would have thought.
Dr. Avilash Kalpathy Cramer is a polar scientist who’s had the unique experience of explaining skiing to his Indian grandmother, without using the word “snow.”